It’s in the title. Composer and producer Bill Whelan had a long and storied career, but one work stands out in both Whelan’s and public’s minds as a career high point. The Riverdance Road is Whelan’s new memoir, and it details just that, chronologically exploring the composer’s life leading up to the 1994 Eurovision halftime show and subsequent stage performance adaptation.
Born in 1950, Whelan was raised as an only child in Limerick and received a Jesuit education at Crescent College before studying law at UCD. The book traces the path of his life from his early childhood through his development of a career in music and stopping at many notable collaborations along the way.
The early parts of the book are told with an intoxicating nostalgia, recollection of 1950s Ireland, of boys in shorts hitchhiking on trains and Jesuit priests handing out corporal punishment; his cousin Tom Lawlor’s pranks in the children’s orchestra and the awkward dances of the teenagers. The effect, doubled by the extremely simple style of the book, is not at all far from Stephen King, minus much of the peril.
Although Whelan rarely discusses Ireland’s turbulent politics and violence in the 20th centuryFrom the start, it feels like they’re playing to the edges, whether in his father’s collection of antique weapons or in his construction, with childhood friends, of improvised homemade bombs. (Fortunately, all of the explosions the boys made were minor.)
The central part of the book, exploring Whelan’s early career and his move away from law, feels like the surge to success of a movie about stardom. Whelan has always, it seems, had a head for the music industry, from opening a recording studio in his parents’ attic while still in high school to to presenting demos to record companies. It was the latter that led to her first major musical success, with her track ‘Denise’ finding its way to Richard Harris, who used it as the title music for his film. flowery field.
70s and 80s
Names – some familiar or famous – begin to appear, as Whelan recounts the 1970s and 1980s, and his early work as a producer, theater keyboardist and copyist for TEN. And while there’s a sense of “one thing leading to another,” there’s also a sense of Whelan making and maintaining connections. The work with TEN led to the National Song Contest, which led to Eurovision and Whelan’s collaboration with Shay Healy for 1980’s Eurovision-winning “What’s Another Year,” performed by Johnny Logan, and then his first show halftime at Eurovision, in 1981 time dance, written for Planxty. From there, chapters are dedicated to his contributions to Kate Bush’s albums, the music for the film Lamb he worked with Van Morrison, working at Windmill Lane, including on U2‘The Refugee’, and to the reconstruction of Seán Ó Riada bet Eanger. There is never any loss of clarity, though many of the people he describes are only sketches, summed up by a single physical or behavioral characteristic.
Much of the dialogue reads as if being told rather than remembered. Healy introduces ‘What’s Another Year’ as follows: ‘I’m after getting my song into the final of the National Song Contest. It’s a ballad that I wrote for me Da. I’m going to ask Johnny Logan to sing it. It would be great if you made the arrangement.
But there are touching moments – the deaths of Whelan’s parents are the subject of a chapter each, and they’re the most heartfelt in the book; and his courtship and his marriage to Denise Quinn (and their honeymoon, which could have been an episode of Father Ted).
Whelan’s late admission and description of his alcoholism also seem to be well-founded. It comes slowly, like a reluctant admission; in the first chapters, he describes his penchant for wine. Later, an arrest for drunk driving on a one-way street. Then in Chapter 31, “Alcohol – The Yeats Festival,” he details the preponderance of alcohol in music and the legal professions. Even then, for the first page and a half, he seems to avoid directly acknowledging the addiction, eventually introducing it in the third person – “Another drug addict once told me she drank because she was an alcoholic” – before fully attacking it.
It is not clear from the book whether he knows this, but the text demonstrates Whelan’s skill in recognizing opportunity, knowing when to say yes; in short, to be an artist in business. It’s a skill he recognizes in others as well, acknowledging the musical talent of Kate Bush (“She took our master piper, Liam O’Flynn, on a kaleidoscopic journey through melody, adding a loop here, lengthening a sentence there, until they created a superb performance’) as much as her business acumen (“…she deftly navigated the notoriously choppy waters surrounding James Joyce’s estate” to secure the rights to use words for his song “The Sensual World”).
Roads before and after
There is no doubt that Whelan sees river dance as the culmination of his career. Two chapters are devoted to it – one to the performance of Eurovision in 1994; the next to the next stage show. As always, much of Whelan’s storytelling revolves around the collaboration that brought it to life, though he leans a little more into the music here than elsewhere, describing the iconic 6/8-in-4 beat. /4 like ‘Chaggada chaggada check book Check book’. And it’s fair to recognize that the market for this book is probably not a music-focused audience.
river dance is a very effective entertainment. Although it can be written (as Adorno wrote Rachmaninoff’s prelude in C sharp minor) as “just” a long crescendo, there is a skill in composing something entertaining, with a melodic and harmonic hook as strong as river dance provides. Even listening to it for this review, this first chromatic step in the bass under the sinuous melody of the seven-beat hits is then effective, an unexpected but appropriate increase in tension before the pressure valve is released at the end of the sentence.
I’ve liked most of the Whelan music I’ve heard; he has an ear for melody, harmony and clean production and orchestration. But river dancethe culmination of the book’s title and direction, is a nearly thirty-year-old work, created when the author was in his forties, and which soon followed other successful works, The Seville Suite (1992) and The Spirit of Mayo (1993). Since then he has worked as a composer, both rearranging his own music (such as the river dance orchestral suites) and in original compositions (such as The Connemara Suite and a flute concerto for James Galway).
But in reading the book, I was hoping – perhaps optimistically, given the title of the book – to get some insight into how Whelan sees the road since river dance. The work so completely dominates his career that the three decades that followed are summed up in a final four-page chapter entitled “Reflections”. And it’s fair to say that’s just not the story he tells. It is likely that the majority of readers of this book will have found their way to Whelan through river dance. So it’s not an oversight in itself, but certainly felt like a lost opportunity. Where are you going after such success? How does this impact your approach to your work?
Perhaps that’s the nature of a career like Whelan’s: a monumental achievement among a catalog that was nonetheless steady and stable. The success of river dance seems to have left him free to compose what he wants and with whom he wants, but at the same time curiously indebted to the work, which he cheerfully promotes and which he has taken up on numerous occasions. And for all that his sound has popular appeal, his memoir rarely mentions the public reaction to his music. The creative process, and the craftsmanship and collaboration associated with it, are central.
The Riverdance Road by Bill Whelan is published by Lilliput Press. Visit www.lilliputpress.ie.
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